Apple’s dominant iPad platform does not have a shortage of web browsers. From Apple’s own excellent Safari to Google’s rising Chrome, the iPad enjoys quality web browsers that compete with each other for the use of consumers. While the previous two browsers are certainly among the more popular, there are other applications that compete in other ways. The Puffin Web Browser is on the forefront of these browsers, offering various features not found on any of the more popular choices.
Designed to be Familiar
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: this app’s marketing is strange. The whole idea of having a puffin — an adorable member of the genus Fratercula — as a web browser’s iconic symbol is odd. The icon is reminiscent of some Twitter clients, which also place a heavy (though understandable) focus on a bird. Suffice to say that the icon of the app stands out on even the most cluttered of homescreens. The icon doesn’t really convey what the app is for, but at least it is memorable.
Luckily, the confusing icon isn’t emblematic of the rest of the design of this browser. Once open, it’s obvious as to what purpose this application will serve. The homepage is automatically set to present the user with the most visited sites. These are presented in rectangles, which are actually surprisingly nice to look at. The overall effect is one that isn’t unlike what is experienced when using Windows 8. In that way, it’s certainly one of the more unique web browsers available on iOS.
Beyond the initial start screen, however, the web browser quickly becomes standard fare. Anyone familiar with a web browser will easily be able to work their way around this one. The URL bar is at the top, and to the right of that is the search bar (which is set to use Google as the default — I was unable to find a way to change this). Tabs are presented above the URL/Search bars. The forward, back, bookmark, and settings button are located to the left of the URL bar. Again, this app isn’t blazing any trails when it comes to design.
Despite the ho-hum design, Puffin does include features that automatically make it stand out from the crowd.
The Trackpad Trick
Not all websites are touch-optimized. This issue is particularly prominent in educational and professional settings, which may still rely on old software and websites that haven’t been updated since the mid-2000s. What, then, is anyone who wants to use an iPad to get work done to do? How is someone supposed to navigate a website that is made for a cursor, and not the larger human finger?
Puffin, unlike Apple’s Safari or Google’s Chrome, has an answer. The answer is brilliantly simple: it gives you a cursor. Tapping the mouse icon in the bottom left hand corner of the screen presents the user with an on-screen trackpad, which controls a mouse cursor. This can be used for clicking and selecting smaller objects that otherwise would require extensive zooming or increased care to interact with.
To be clear, the experience isn’t ideal for normal browsing. It does effectively render a corner of your iPad useless, except for controlling the cursor. The cursor itself looks incredibly odd on an iPad, the supposed harbinger of next-generation computing. The feature is, however, not meant to be always on. It is simply for those websites that require it, and Puffin is the only web browser I’ve experienced that actually does anything like this.
In addition to the trackpad trick, there are also gestures that invoke features. Swiping to the right can either move forward, bring up the keyboard, or bring up the trackpad. Swiping to the left performs similar actions. The gestures are useful in some cases, though almost feel somewhat gimmicky.
Lastly, there is a a user-customizable popup that offers certain keyboard controls. Each touch target can be set to interface with a specific keyboard key. What’s the use case for this? Online games — including some Flash programs and games.
Performance and Server Side Features
Puffin takes the concept of browsing from a tablet, and then throws the sheer computing power of a server farm behind it. Or at least that’s the idea. In practice, this concept doesn’t quite pan out in such a dramatic fashion.
Puffin strives to pre-load web pages on the backend before you access them. The app tries to “utilize servers to pre-process and compress web pages, achieving loading times others can only dream of.” Sounds insanely futuristic, right?
In real usage, I didn’t notice a difference between the load times of Puffin and Safari. Both seemed very snappy, and both quickly loaded and rendered web pages. Maybe Puffin was able to beat Safari out some times, but the difference did not translate to any perceptible difference.
That isn’t to say that Puffin is slow. It was able to match Safari, one of — if not the — fastest web browsers available.
Puffin is able to play Flash videos. This feature isn’t exclusive to Puffin, as it has been available through other apps for some time, though it is useful in some cases. However, with more and more websites offering HTML5 versions of videos, it seems as if this feature has an already-ticking expiration date.
More interestingly is the ability to play Adobe Flash games. Puffin supports this feature, somehow, and is the only browser I know of that actually allows users to play games. This, again, sounds impressive, but the actual implementation is less than stellar. Low frame rates and laggy response times characterize the use of this feature. So while this browser does allow for the playing of Flash games, it’s still a much better idea to simply go to Apple’s App Store for entertainment.
One of the more useful features is the ability to change the browser’s user agent. The user agent is the string of code that reports to a server and requests a specific version of the website. It is responsible for presenting users with mobile versions of websites. Often, a mobile version appears when it isn’t wanted or needed: the iPad has a large screen, and is more than capable of loading most websites. Puffin allows you to specify exactly which version of a website you want to see.
A Professional Web Browser
Safari and Chrome are better browsers for everyday use. They both integrate better with existing products (Safari with iCloud and OS X, Chrome with Google’s excellent online ecosystem), and they both feel more native to the iPad.
There is a place for Puffin. Puffin is a professional web browser. It’s the web browser that you have in a folder when you need to access a server tree, or a website that hasn’t been touched since 1999. Is it worth the $2.99 price? If ever you have struggled to use a website on the iPad, then the answer is a resounding “yes.” It isn’t always useful, but when it is, Puffin is indispensable.